To tip my hat to the great man then, here, in chronological order of release, are some of my favourite performances from him (including a few honourable mentions). While it would be tempting to dive into biography as well, that kind of material is already widely available. Call this more a personal love letter, so to speak.
Honourable Mention #1 - The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963)
So while I'm well overdue for a re-visit, I do remember being particularly moved by Pleasence's performance in this and the plight of his character.
Also, this chronology aside, this might be the first film of his which I actually saw. Remember watching it late one night with my dad when I was a kid but can't recall if I'd seen Halloween by that point or not.
Honourable Mention #2 - You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967)
Another I haven't seen in years. In fact, this one, I haven't watched since I was a kid. They used to show Bond movies every Saturday afternoon (on ITV I think) and I remember this was one of my favourites. In fact if memory serves, I think I did call this my number one back then.
Again, definitely high time for a re-watch. And even though it's many many moons since my last viewing, Donald's iconic and arguably definitive portrayal of Blofeld has always stuck with me. Also, just comparing that performance and his in The Great Escape shows what an incredible range he had.
P.S. Perusing Twitter just now and apparently, it's James Bond Day.
Death Line (Gary Sherman, 1972)
If pushed, this might be my current favourite role of Donald's, all due respect to Dr. Sam Loomis and many others. I mean I can't think of another movie at present where I've enjoyed watching him more. Every scene, line delivery, bit of body language, you name it, is absolutely golden. To say he steals the film is an understatement. And an all too brief scene, where his acerbic, no bullshit, working class copper spars with Christopher Lee's MI5 agent, is perhaps one of the greatest bits of back and forth between two actors that I've ever seen. It's the sort of sequence that I could watch on a loop, it's so bloody good.
That aside, again, every scene with his character, Inspector Calhoun, is a delight. Case in point, when after work one night, he and his subordinate, Detective Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington) go to the pub and get shit-faced. To the point where well after last orders, the landlord has a hell of a time getting them to leave.
And overall, while it has its fans, I feel this film doesn't get enough love. I mean for me, it's up there with some of the best genre films of the decade, which is saying something, as the '70s might be the best ten years horror ever had (discuss!).
Honourable Mention #3 - Tales That Witness Madness (Freddie Francis, 1973)
Another I'm well overdue to re-visit. Think I've only seen it once. Not one of the best anthology films I've seen, as I recall, but perfectly serviceable and entertaining. And the stories aside, I remember enjoying the wraparound, which features Pleasence showing Jack Hawkins around his high tech looking asylum, which links this movie to another, which I'll be getting to later in this post.
The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (Jeff Grant, 1973)
Something of a wildcard, this public information film is less than two minutes long but apparently made a big impact on a whole generation. And Donald is perfectly cast as the narrator and Death himself. And between this and a few of the films featured in this post, it makes me further appreciate what a great and distinctive voice he had. Am wondering if he read any audio books or short stories, as I'd love to listen to them.
From Beyond the Grave (Kevin Connor, 1974)
Another anthology and a film that's quickly become one of my favourites, from Amicus or anyone else. Pleasence features in a story this time, rather than the wraparound. And as if his performance, as an ex service man, wasn't wonderful enough, we have the added bonus of him being joined by his real life daughter, the also great Angela Pleasence (if you've never seen Symptoms, from the same year, seek it out asap), playing the same role.
Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
Natch. Rather than talking about all of his Halloween films at once, gonna carry on with the chronological approach. And man oh man, where the hell do we begin? I mean it's a cliche to say what can we add that hasn't been expressed a million times already r.e. this series and this movie in particular but of course, it has to be said. Anyway, what can I tell ya?
While, like the whole movie, Donald's performance is, of course, pitch perfect, I suppose in retrospect, I came to really appreciate it as I got a bit older and more aware of what goes into making a film. But despite some apparent misgivings r.e. some of the dialogue (which I didn't know about until I saw an on set interview with him last night. It's on Youtube), he completely sells every single word. His famous monologue, delivered to Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers), being a case in point, of course. I don't know how it would have come across from any other actor (and now, like folks have said, it's hard to imagine anyone else delivering it), but he makes it sound like Shakespeare.
Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981)
I'm less familiar with this than most of Carpenter's back catalogue but I do enjoy re-watching it every now and then. And while my memory is a bit fuzzy on some of it, I remember appreciating how they gave Pleasence a rather different role here to that of Dr. Loomis. I.e. in the sense that the US president he plays is, as I recall anyway, a bit of a villain himself. Not to the same extent as others in the film but in the way that you might expect a world leader in a dystopian society to be. Grey shaded, for want of a better way of putting it. And Donald perfectly portrays him as such. I'll say no more as again, I need to refresh my memory on it.
Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, 1981)
Again, not much I can add r.e. this series really but one thing I'll mention, which always amused me. When Loomis thinks he sees Michael but it's really the ill fated Ben Tramer, trying to get some trick or treaters to move away, he shouts, "Get back, you kids!" but to my ears, for some reason I always like to think he's saying "Get back, you pigs!". Silly, I know, but I always get a kick out of it. Same with before blowing the hospital up at the end, when he sounds like he turns cockney for a moment.
Another movie I'm less familiar with. Only seen it twice, the second viewing being very recent. Dug it the first time. LOVED it the second. Pleasence plays another psychiatrist and an eccentric one to boot. He's understanding of and liberal with his patients to a fault. I mean Loomis would be dismayed at his security arrangements. He smokes pot. And, to be fair, he does seem to be able to handle his patients quite well some of the time. This is quickly becoming another of my favourite performances of his, as he's such fun to watch.
Nothing Underneath (Carlo Vanzina, 1985)
Donald plays an Italian copper in this, with accent to boot (which sometimes slips but is generally quite consistent) and a moustache as well. I love how dryly sarcastic he is. How he calls the American protagonist Wyoming. And the scene where he hits the salad bar at Wendy's is, with another couple of sequences mentioned in this post, one of the greatest things ever committed to celluloid.
Phenomena (Dario Argento, 1985)
One of my favourite films from one of my favourite directors, so of course having Pleasence in it is like a cherry on top. I wish he was in it more but even in relatively limited time, we get a good sense of the demeanour of his wheelchair bound entomologist. He's no nonsense and straight talking but warm and eager to help those who come to him, from the police to our protagonist, played by Jennifer Connelly. And again, he radiates it all with ease. And he has a chimpanzee nurse, with whom he also shows a great rapport with, being sort of a father figure to her.
Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)
Always loved this film but during a recent re-watch, on my birthday, the 1st of October, where I premiered the 4K restored Blu-Ray released last year, it shot up even more in my estimation. Partly because of Donald's performance. Specifically a scene, a good way into the film I think, where, as I recall, he's praying and weeping, because of the dire, apocalyptic state of things and obviously crying out to God as a result. Between that and some other moments as well, the film really hit me much more on an emotional level than it had previously and now I'd argue it may be as great a movie as any Carpenter has ever made. And Pleasence for that matter too, of course.
Phantom of Death (Ruggero Deodato, 1988)
Another movie which I find quite affecting and one I don't hear enough love for. Michael York plays the lead, a musician afflicted by a rare disease which rapidly ages him, sends him crazy and murderous. And Donald is the detective who hunts him down. The former pushes the latter to the point where he has an absolutely amazing swear-tastic meltdown in the middle of a busy street. Worth seeing for that alone but overall I think the film is solid.
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Dwight H. Little, 1988)
As with Halloween II and even more so, despite the passage of years, Pleasence slips right back into Loomis's shoes like he never took them off. Scarred, even more on a mission and take charge than before, this could be the peak of the character. Love his scene with the preacher while on the road to Haddonfield and the showdown with Michael at the gas station too. And his expression and reaction to the tragedy that unfolds at the film's end is so real and raw that it almost hurts to watch.
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Dominique Othenin-Girard, 1989)
Generally seen as where the series jumped the shark somewhat, still though, I've always enjoyed this one, despite and now partly because of its flaws. And as far as Loomis is concerned, it seems the events at the end of 4 have driven him almost unhinged, as there's scenes where he's harassing the shit out of poor little Jamie. But given the context, it's understandable. And as always, Donald plays it all totally straight, so it holds together.
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Joe Chappelle, 1995)
The final film on our list. Like all of the series, I saw it when I was young, so have always had a lot of time and love for it. In recent years though, it's started to really shoot up in my estimation and is currently perhaps the sequel which I get most excited to re-watch. And am talking about the theatrical cut here. I watched the producer's once and fucking hated the ending. I'll watch it again sometime but for me, the theatrical was a case of if it ain't broke...
Despite being so close to the end of his life (he'd pass away on the 2nd February 1995, in Saint Paul de Vence, France due to heart failure, following heart valve replacement surgery) and clearly frail, when the action gets going, he still clearly means business.
It's admittedly bittersweet watching him in this, knowing it'd be the final time he'd play Dr. Loomis but even though the end for his character is tragic, I've always read it as a sacrifice he felt he had to make. And also, while it seems as though said ending may well have been tacked on after his death, it still feels kind of perfect. Especially the cut to black before the credits, following a pumpkin seen on a very windy porch, which has now presumably been blown out. An image which, to me, marks the end of an era. Well after the golden age of the slasher film had ended (though we can debate when that was) but a year before Scream and the cycle of movies that it spawned, it really seems like a full stop between the former era and the latter.
So there you have it. Just some thoughts on and humble appreciation for one of the finest actors we've had the pleasure of gracing our screens. And as he had, if memory serves, a staggering 234 acting credits, it excites me no end to know that I've still got so many more performances from him to discover and enjoy. Happy 100th Birthday Donald! Cheers for all the great work you've given us. Needless to say, am going to watch a film or two of your's tonight to tip my hat and raise my glass to you. And of course I hope anyone reading this will do the same. Even if it's not today. I mean this year you've got the perfect excuse to watch as much of his stuff as you can, which is precisely what I'm planning on doing.